Jesus Confronts Added Traditions

SYNOPSIS - Jesus undermined the religious rationale for dietary restrictions. With the arrival of the Son of Man, old rituals lose their religious relevance - Mark 7:1-23

Lunar Eclipse - Photo by Mark Tegethoff on Unsplash
By Mark Tegethoff on Unsplash
Jerusalem was the geographical center of the religious and political opposition to Jesus - Most specifically, the Temple. From this point forward in the gospel of Mark, Jesus experiences increasing conflict with the Jewish religious authorities, especially from the Pharisees, scribes, and the representatives of the high priest.

Events caused a confrontation over an issue of great importance to the Jewish religious establishment - What constitutes ceremonial uncleanness? What is it that truly renders a man ritually impure?

The Greek term rendered “unclean” more correctly means “common” (koinos). It refers to that which is “common” as opposed to something that is “sacred,” not to something immoral or filthy. A thing was not unclean because it was inherently evil or covered with dirt, but because it was for common use rather than consecrated to the service of God.
  • (Mark 7:1-13) - “And the Pharisees and some of the Scribes, having come from Jerusalem, are gathering together towards him, and having observed some of his disciples that with common hands, that is, unwashed, they eat bread, for the Pharisees and all the Jews, except they properly wash the hands, eat not, holding fast the tradition of the elders, and [coming] from the marketplace, except they immerse themselves, eat not and many other things there are which they accepted to hold fast, immersions of cups and pitchers and copper vessels [and beds]. And the Pharisees and the Scribes are questioning him, ‘For what reason do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with common hands?’ Now he said to them, ‘Well prophesied Isaiah concerning you, the hypocrites, as it is written, THIS, THE PEOPLE, WITH THE LIPS DO HONOR ME, YET THEIR HEART IS HOLDING OFF FAR FROM ME; MOREOVER VAINLY ARE THEY REVERING ME, TEACHING [AS] TEACHINGS ORDINANCES OF MEN. Having negated the ordinance of God, you are grasping the tradition of men.’ And he was saying to them, ‘Well are you nullifying the ordinance of God, in order to keep your own tradition. For Moses said, HONOR YOUR FATHER AND YOUR MOTHER, and, HE WHO REVILES FATHER OR MOTHER SHALL END IN DEATH. Moreover you say if a man says to father or mother, Korban (that is, a gift), whatever from me you might benefit, no longer are you allowing him to do anything for father or mother, invalidating the word of God by your tradition which you delivered; and many similar things such as this are you doing’” - (Compare - Matthew 15:1-9).
Many of the rituals for the maintenance of ritual purity employed at this time were later developments of the religious authorities (the elders”). Not a few of the traditions and practices attributed to the “scribes and Pharisees” in the gospel accounts were not found in the Hebrew Bible.

According to the Mosaic Law, only priests were required to wash their hands before entering the Tabernacle. For non-priests, the washing of hands was necessitated only if a person had touched a bodily discharge. The things that rendered someone “unclean” when touched included human excretions (semen, menstrual blood, spit, excrement), women after childbirth, corpses, lepers, and some classes of people - (Exodus 30:19, 40:13, Leviticus 15:11, 22:1-6).

Earlier in the gospel of Mark, Jesus had contact with tax collectors, lepers, Gentiles, menstruating women, and even corpses. Washing hands or the body to deal with any resulting pollutions had nothing to do with hygiene and everything to do with restoring or maintaining ritual purity - (Mark 1:40, 2:13, 5:1, 5:25, 5:35).

The parenthetical statement explaining the practices of the Jews indicates that 'Mark' wrote originally for Gentile readers unfamiliar with Jewish rituals - (“For the Pharisees and all the Jews, except they properly wash the hands...”).

A bed was especially susceptible to ritual pollution due to the night secretions of the body (semen and menstrual blood). The “marketplace” was also where the risk of contamination was high because of the large crowds. For this reason, the passage refers, not just to washing hands, but also to “immersion” after a man returns from the marketplace.

The key dispute between Jesus and his critics concerned the washing of the hands before eating. Scripture only required priests to wash their hands before entering the Tabernacle or Temple. Other members of the community were required under the Torah to do so only if one had touched a bodily discharge. Nothing was said about washing hands prior to eating a meal  - (Leviticus 15:11).

This practice was added by the Pharisees - It was not a commandment found in the Torah but a later oral tradition. The Pharisees were imposing ritual requirements from the Law to the everyday life of all Jews, regulations that were specific to priests ministering in the Temple. What Jesus attacked was the “tradition of the elders,” not the Torah.

Dispute with the Pharisees
Dispute with the Pharisees
The question raised by the Pharisees was about the condition of the one who ate (“
Why do your disciples eat with unclean hands?”). The term “marketplace” points to their real concern - Anything from a public place could easily render them “unclean” due to the improper handling of food and other items by less devout Jews or contact with Gentiles.

Some English translations fail to convey a wordplay found in the Greek text - “Teaching teachings, the ordinances of men” - (didaskontes didaskalias). This saying of Jesus alludes to a passage from the book of Isaiah:
  • (Isaiah 29:13) - Yahweh said, ‘because this people draw near with their words, and honor me with their lip service, but they remove their hearts far from me, and their reverence for me consists of tradition learned by rote.”
Jesus used two strong verbs - (“having negated the ordinance of God, grasping the tradition of men”). The pronouncements of the Scribes and Pharisees had negated the ordinance of God and they were clinging to human traditions, not to the original commandments of God.

Korban” is from a Hebrew word that referred to offerings set aside or dedicated exclusively to the use of God, rather than for ordinary use. Some Jews set aside property for divine use in order to deny its use to their parents. Thus, a man avoided an obligation to support his parents. Any property declared korban passed to the Temple on the son’s death - (Exodus 20:12, 21:17).

The issue was whether this post-biblical practice could be used to set aside a commandment of God. Those engaging in the practice employed a later tradition to circumvent the original intent of the Law, in this case, for children to honor and care for their parents - Thus, they annulled a commandment of the Torah by using a later oral tradition.

What Defiles a Man?
  • (Mark 7:14-23) - “And again having summoned the multitude, he was declaring to them, ‘Heed me, all of you, and understand. There is nothing from outside the man entering into him that can defile him; but the things proceeding out from the man are the things defiling the man. And when he entered into a house from the multitude, his disciples were questioning him about the parable. And he says to them, ‘Thus also are you without understanding? Do you not perceive that nothing from outside entering into the man can defile him, because it is entering not into his heart but into the stomach and it proceeds into the latrine, cleansing all foods?’ And he was saying, ‘That proceeding out from the man defiles the man. For from within out of the heart of men the wicked things are coming forth; fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, lusts, malice, treacheries, indecencies, an evil eye, blasphemy, arrogance, folly; all these wicked things are coming forth from within and defiling the man’” - (Compare - Matthew 15:10-20).
Some English translations read, “Thus he declared all foods clean.” Often, this is treated as a parenthetical statement inserted by 'Mark' for the sake of his Gentile readers. However, there was little need for this since any Gentile believers would not have been under the Levitical dietary restrictions anyway.

In the Greek clause, the words “thus,” “he,” and “declared” are not present and all marks of punctuation were added later. The Greek clause consists of four words: katharizōn panta ta brōmata, and more correctly reads - “Cleansing all the foods.” The point was that consuming certain foods did NOT make a man “unclean” - All foods once consumed go into the stomach and end up in the latrine - The body separates the pure from the impure.

This statement by Jesus does not abrogate the Levitical food regulations. The question of their continuing validity was not the issue under discussion. However, his pronouncement does remove the religious logic underlying dietary restrictions. Later, in part, the Apostle Paul argued for Christian tolerance on issues of food based on this saying of Jesus - (Romans 14:1-17, Colossians 2:16-23).

What differentiates the holy from the unholy are the actions and intentions produced by the heart. It is a moral action, willful decisions on the part of individuals, that make a man or woman “clean” or “unclean,” not external religious rituals or food.

Previously, Jesus demonstrated his authority over the Sabbath, as well as his right to rule on matters of ritual purity. Now he displays the authority of the "Son of Man" over dietary rituals and regulations.



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